Interview with Liz Wilson
by Kevin Beck

Liz Wilson competes at the 2004 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials.
(Photo by Alison Wade/New York Road Runners)

At 36, two-time Olympic Marathon Trials competitor Liz Wilson of Eugene has run only five marathons in all, but the former University of Oregon standout has made each of them count. Born in Taiwan, Wilson, a two-time Pac-10 cross country champion as a Duck, is one of only three women to place in the top 15 at both the 2000 and 2004 US Olympic Marathon Trials (Susannah Beck and Jenny Crain are the others), and she has been remarkably steady, slotting four of her five times in the 2:37:27 to 2:38:18 range.

A member of four US World Cross Country teams and a seven-time NCAA All-American, Wilson's most recent foray into the 26.2-mile distance was a seventh-place finish at last October's Twin Cities Marathon, an effort that left her just short of earning an automatic spot on the US team for the World Marathon Championships in Helsinki later this year.

Wilson has also made two appearances (1992 and 1996) at the Olympic Track & Field Trials. Her best 10K and half-marathon times are 33:23 (32:32 aided) and 1:13:58; these date back to 1995 and 1998 respectively, but Wilson didn't get serious about the roads until honing in on the marathon in late 1998, when she debuted with a third-place 2:37:45 at the California International Marathon. A sales manager for SportHill, Wilson hopes to break out of her marathon 'rut' and ease into the low 2:30s. tracked down Wilson between sales trips in the Rocky Mountains and spoke with her about, among other things, her win at last August's Nike Run Hit Wonder 10K, where Wilson's victory before an array of 1980s schlock acts packing downtown Portland, Oregon, earned her a new guitar. You had a great finish in Twin Cities. Did you accomplish everything you wanted to?
Liz Wilson:
I originally had hopes of being one of the top two American women so I could represent the US at the World Marathon Championships. So the short answer is a definite no.

FW: Until Twin Cities, you had run in the 'bare minimum' number of marathons — four — for a two-time Marathon Trials participant. Did it feel different preparing for a marathon that wasn't either a Trials qualifying attempt or a Trials race?
Yes, it did. I considered the fact that this was the first marathon where I wasn't preparing to qualify for, or race in, the Trials.

FW: Relative to your overall performance level throughout your career, you've been very successful in the marathon despite little experience in this arena.
I've certainly been consistent. I don't think I'd consider myself that successful in that I haven't really run fast, but I have been consistent. I think all of my marathon times are between 2:37 to 2:38 and 2:40. I do think I'm decent and wonder what I could do with some consistent, non-interrupted training and racing. But then, doesn't everyone wonder that? Isn't that what keeps bringing us back? [Laughs.]

FW: You brought not only years of racing but a great range of competitive experience to your first marathon. In your view, how has this worked to your advantage?
I do have a lot of track and cross country experience. I do think I was successful in cross country, placing in top 30 at Worlds one year. I really enjoyed that part of the sport and had success running a few of the international cross country series races. If I had winters off, I'd still travel to all of those races.

As far as this working to my advantage, maybe focusing on track and cross country instead of on road racing helped keep both my legs and my mind fresher. I consider myself a strength-type runner, so I think the marathon and muddy cross country races might be better for me.

FW: Do you wish you'd waded into marathons sooner than you did?
No, I think I ran my first marathon just when I was ready. I knew in 1999 that my schedule wasn't going to permit me to run the World Cross Country team trials, so I figured it was a good time to try something new. I was itching for a bit of a change and new challenge and after training a bit with a few women in town, including Lynn Nelson and Laura LaMena-Coll, I felt like I took to the training well and my interest in running a marathon really grew. Only thing I wish now is that I could find a way to break the 2:37 'barrier' and run in the low 2:30s...

FW: With three months to go until the 2004 Olympic Trials, you didn't have a qualifier. In fact, you had not run a marathon since the 2000 Trials. Was this the result of injury or was it rooted in uncertainty?
It was injury. In the fall of '99, I started having plantar fascia pain. Of course, I treated it with all available options and tried to stay on course for the Olympic Marathon Trials. I made it to the Trials, made it through the Trials, and then I was trashed. My feet were bad and I spent almost two years getting them back to normal. I like normal! I wasn't sure that running was going to happen again for me — I did the bike thing, tried to find other ways to get my workout fix and burn some energy, all while trying nearly every treatment available to me. I finally had surgery, as the final option, in the late spring of 2001.

I slowly resumed running and thought about whether I could qualify for the Trials again. I did, and wow, was it fun! I really enjoyed the P.F. Chang Rock 'n' Roll Marathon [in January, 2004, where she was seventh in 2:41:33 and the top US finisher] and was happy with how smooth the race felt. I felt like I never got back into the shape I was in for the 2000 Trials, but I was proud of what I was able to accomplish on less training at the 2004 race. Of course, I would have preferred to be more competitive; being in the top 10 would have made me very proud, and being in the top five again would have been out of this world considering everything.

FW: Actually, it sounds as though the entire four-year period from 2000 to 2004 was one big trial for you. On a hopefully lighter note, who's your coach?
I've worked with Mike Manley since the summer of 1998. Mike was a 1972 Olympian in the steeplechase and a tough-as-nails runner whom I respect immensely. He taught high school, raised a family and still managed to compete at a high level, so he understands the necessity to work training into life and vice versa. Mike has coached many talented athletes along the way, more than I could venture to name. He's been traveling quite a bit this past year, so we've mainly been e-mailing.

FW: Do you ordinarily train alone or with others?
For the past two years, alone. I have a wonderful early-morning training partner, my friend Al Whalen. He's another early-morning crazy person. We run often at 5:15 or 5:30. It's great — having company at that hour opens up all of the roads and bike paths to me. When I ran on my own, I'd just run the loops with lots of light. I miss training with folks, as running is very social for me.

FW: In general, do you follow a periodized program or a multi-pace, year-round model?
I'd say I mix it up. Lots of things can mess with my plans: work schedule, traveling, et cetera. I tend to focus on a goal fairly far down the road and find a way to hit it. I don't think I've ever had a year-round model — maybe that would be good for me to try? [Laughs.]

FW: A la Rod Dixon, you seem to have had several distinct post-collegiate careers — first on the track, then in cross country, and now on the roads. Has this been by design or has your career more or less followed the whims of the running gods?
I'd say more the whims of the running gods. Not so much following whims, actually, but doing all that was available at the time post-collegiately. I enjoyed cross country, and once I realized I had the opportunity to continue running it on a national and international level, I worked hard to keep it in my racing plans. As a result I didn't run many road races. The cross country schedule worked well for me — fall/winter in the US and spring World Championships. I enjoyed running road races after the track season, because I always felt fresher on the roads after a month or two of track racing. The progression to roads/marathon was logical, as track became limited post-collegiately if I didn't pursue the European summer circuit.

FW: Fifteen years ago, did you see yourself competing at the elite level well into your thirties?
No, I didn't think about it 15 years ago but I would have bet not...I'm getting old!

FW: How has your work career, which is hardly trivial, meshed with your running career?
I think it has meshed well. I enjoy what I do and think I'm good at it. Sometimes the worlds collide. I tried early on to keep work and running very separate, but there is just some natural camaraderie. I tend to work hard and play hard, with the work side overpowering the other! It isn't a coincidence that many of the top business executives run; it's the most time-efficient exercise, very portable, mind-clearing, thought/idea generating, and really quite a friendly sport.

FW: You've actually been in Eugene for 15 years. Obviously it's an area with a rich history in distance running, but hasn't hosted any elite training groups in the Hansons mold in recent years [as far as I know]. I imagine you've seen lots of individual runners come and go.
There have been some that move here and then leave. We do have a few groups that are working hard to generate the group training methods, like Team Eugene and Team XO. What's amazing is that there have been folks who come here to train and I never see them.

FW: As another adult child of the eighties I have to confess that the Run Hit Wonder race sounds like a great concept. What model of guitar did you win?
LW:'s where I might mess up since I can't run down to the basement to check. I think it is a Gibson. It is very cool! I don't know how to play, but my friend Cindie gave me my first lesson a few weeks ago. Watch out! I always said that I'd love to dance in a music video, but now I'll need to switch that to play in a music video!

FW: They must have played either 'Come on Eileen,' 'Tainted Love,' or 'Eye of the Tiger.'
Oooh, another tough question. I love music, and like I said I especially love to dance, but I would be the last person you'd call to ask the name of a song, album or group. I do think 'Eye of the Tiger' was played. It was great! The first band wasn't ready when we ran by...they played a great song as we turned the next corner, so I was bummed that I wasn't back in the pack. [Laughs.]

FW: Other than bidding for a slot on VH1, what's on your plate for 2005?
I'm considering running in the Winter Cross Country Nationals [the following weekend] for fun. Perhaps another marathon — I thought about running Boston, but spent much of December sick and not running, so that's out. Maybe a June marathon and some racing leading up to that. I'd like to PR in the marathon and break that 'consistent' time I've had for a while.

(Interview conducted February 4, 2005, and posted February 10, 2005.)

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